Conversations On How To Write

(Further self-important essays on the writing process and advise and exercises can be found in How Not To Write By Someone Who Doesn’t)


 

In the depths of the hellish night shift the brain has time to mull over problems not typically considered in a busier, more sunlit atmosphere. In my case I’m lucky enough that there’s someone in the opposite time-zone to me who is also frequently bored in charge of a computer, and has her head screwed on when it comes to the business of writing.

You’ll have to excuse the regular descent into internet vernacular with attendant poor grammar (on my part), spelling, and punctuation. There’s been a tiny amount of censorship and explanation but on the whole I wanted to maintain the authenticity of the original discussion, mostly conducted between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 in the morning in between hating the national press.

Your host, I (YHI): it’s much easier to think when answering questions too

Extraordinary Comic Maker (ECM): yeah, like.. breaking it down into it’s parts to assemble sentences, from nebulous thought into structure, even as it’s growing, helps with untangling and identifying gaps and obvious problems.

This is one of the reasons I’m not a fan of “oh, I won’t answer that question until I’ve done some research/thinking”; I find that in answering a question on the fly it’s a lot easier to bring together elements that are bubbling away beneath the surface and get to a more concrete solution than by toiling away alone in the dark.

YHI: Yes! And in explaining it to someone else, one has to have an idea of what one means. It can be very helpful for filling in the gaps, as you say.

ECM: Yeah, always special to try to explain something and then go …????  I have no idea what I’m trying to describe???

YHI: I find the act of trying solidifies things, possibly due to my DESPERATE NEED to sound like I know what I’m talking about at all times, and suddenly all of the vague “I hadn’t really thought about it’s” turn into “QUICK PULL SOMETHING OUT OF YOUR ASS SO PEOPLE DON’T REALISE HOW DUMB YOU ARE”. Amazing what a panicked ego can achieve.

Personally I’m a big fan of hacking the worst aspects of my personality in order to make things which are usually grotesquely self-destructive work in my favour. I may not be able to change the fact that I’m defeatist, ego-centric, and pathetically keen to sound intelligent at all times, but I can at least work on bending those personality traits into helping me to persist and achieve at least small goals!

Fortunately, ECM knows what I’m talking about:

ECM: Necessity, panic, something, invention? Ohhhhhhhh I know that one. A bit like the “I like how you did x, and how it parallels y” “YES, YES THAT WAS INTENTIONAL, YEAH. (???!!!!!)”

For what it’s worth, I think a lot of the instances of “yes, yes, that was intentional” are at least subconsciously so:

YHI: ah, my old friend “i think that was wholly subconscious but i’m going to pretend i’m totes that clever”

The discussion moved onto the specifics of world-building for a while:

YHI: so useful to have intercultural conflict even between characters which get on – it’s just not a realistic representation of sentience otherwise

At which point ECM gloriously and brilliantly climbed onto a soapbox which I can’t articulate half as well, and I’m going to give you her response in full to mull over for your own writing projects, because she nails so accurately the real core of creating a believable, meaty, weight world:

ECM:

And yeah, it’s the thing of not wanting to make people too reasonable or emotionally competent. And there should always be more stories about people of different backgrounds and cultures mixing in positive or at least non hostile ways and still being people – that is, a bit dickish and self involved, getting on best when there is a shared goal, running into each other when stress is high, more forgiving and able to handle offence and upset when well rested and secure, more willing to admit guilt when they trust each other, able to compromise but not all the time.
I dunno. I understand all the reasons why fiction matters, that nothing is without ideology in some way, but… arg. People are dickheads and it’s not the end of days. People hurt through well meaning and indifference and spite and and sometimes it doesn’t matter in the slightest and other times it does. Aaaand for the most part people just do not give a shit.
I don’t want tedious ‘if onlys and should be-s’ and I don’t want nightmare ‘if you’re not carefuls’. Not exactly reality but something that breaths, that is recognizable as real, if out of focus, perhaps more interior. Like dreams – moments of sharp focus and lots of dim movement and shapes and knowings.
I want this world to have big difficult powers that wear lots of hats, and the rage felt by not being able to see your enemy, of being under attack and going out of you mind to find the source of the sharp pains that come for invisible sources. And I want these big powers to be mortal and fallible. Always on the brink of finally becoming too arrogant and blind to survive, but mean and determined enough to get where they are. For this universe to heave and shift and everyone just try to hang on and make dinner and a life.
And I want it to over exposed and desperate and cold and quiet. Very very big. Deep, wide, shifting. Big structures that change the shape but not the texture. Things decaying even as they’re built. And new life, always life, thriving and struggling and fucking and getting in it’s own way. No great answer no great conclusion just more of the same until it all ends. Horror and beauty and fart jokes. No right answers and nothing beyond hope and it’s all indifference and bitter unfairness. No special ones. Absolutely no special ones. Not and ideal universe but a universe that has – and fails to live up to it’s – ideals. And for it all to have some fucking bite.
“Horror and beauty and fart jokes”, possibly the greatest manifesto heading you can ask for.
YHI: it makes sense and your ambitions are narratively speaking deeply worthy… i mean, imo, what you’ve set out to do is encompass the entire realistic human experience as painted on a broader canvas, hugely ambitious and right. you can’t just detach any part of existence from all others and have it make sense, the whole machine of environment and prejudice and interaction and history has come together to make every single moment and quirk, right? so the engine of story you’re building is functional and accurate, unlike the “i’d like it to be this colour and the details can just go spit” approach people take most of the time.
Back to specifics:
ECMI think this story will live and die on how emotionally believable the story is
YHI: All stories worth reading live and die on that. Emotionally unbelievable stories may have technical perfection but no one ever loves them.
And then, my dear audience, she asked me a whole bunch of questions.

How do you manage the emotional integrity of a story?
you keep drawing on the depth of your characters until they feel like real people, you get a template of them in your head and then you drag them out of their depth and bang them into each other; as long as none of their responses feel inauthentic you know it’s working out. sometimes the plot has to change as you go along because the characters have their own life and just won’t do the thing you’ve said they should… it’s usually best to listen at this point. it’s a pretty organic way of working admittedly but you can’t force things. if a character refuses reconciliation and goes for a big sacrifice that’s just what it’s in them to do…

When do you know a story is done?
there’s a shape stories have. it’s usually sometime after the lowest point. there’s about three “lowests”, and the absolute lowest is followed by an up-tick, where there’s a kind of cool moment of calm or stasis, usually with the promise that something will happen, but not just yet… that’s where the plot ends. That’s the end of that story. [the “something” that’s about to happen can be of another order of magnitude, dr who is quite a good reference point for this – old dr who anyway. sarah waters is with me on that one]. in terms of “ready to be written” done-ness it’s usually when the fucking thing starts writing itself; the characters start talking and won’t shut up, you’ve assembled something so lively that the narration is burping its way into quiet moments of your life, and the wretched infection has to be written or you will not get a moment’s peace. as soon as i can “hear” it clearly i know it’s approaching readiness.

Dialogue? How?

let characters talk to each other in your head, write down what they say, remove approximately 90% of it so that it doesn’t take up four thousand pages. if they won’t talk to each other write about the way they’re not talking to each other and what they interpret from the silences. throw in raymond chandler’s man with a gun to make them interact if necessary. the way i approach it, at least, they should be a) out of water enough to behave beyond the limits of normality as a result of plot events, and b) so well-fleshed that their responses to events can be relied upon to be natural; dialogue follows as a result of that. to take what you’re working on as an example: someone bursts in and demands to see the navigator, clearly not knowing who that is, while [REDACTED, a character specific to ECM’s project] is standing right there. what does he say? what do they say? what information are they trying to convey and how is their ability to convey that impeded by [REDACTED, a character specific to ECM’s project] being a moody bitch at them? eavesdropping conversations was something i was taught to do both in theatre school and on various writing courses, and i did some audio typing work for a friend who needed her phd interviews transcribing; if you spend a little time writing down verbatim what people say to each other (then remove all the fucking repetition and 99% of the hesitations and at least some of the circumlocution) it helps to internalise what natural speech patterns sound like and what kind of character they’re attached to. the aim is to be able to determine who is talking without any attribution [and once you’ve got it settled you can play with it, having people speak in a way that is not natural, and which therefore makes readers feel unsettled].

Single thing you wrote/created that you’re most proud of?

usually this is just “the most recent thing i’ve written and didn’t hate”, and currently really is the case, i have genuine confidence that [it] is probably the most well-constructed and emotionally broad thing, the least over-indulgent thing i’ve written to date. but it’s not ready.

Work that you most admire? 

for clarity of vision and character stability, pat barker’s regeneration books. for character voice lolita and the book i’m reading at the moment [this was The Debt To Pleasure, which i wholly recommend]; for break-neck pacing and sheer excitement, glass books; for abject poetry and management of delicate clue-laying and emotional sadism on an incredible scale mary renault – her touch is so light you sometimes have to read and reread to get all of the layers, and the rhythm of her sentences occasionally makes me angry because they’re so WELL BALANCED AND JUST. TOO GOOD. – there are a lot of works where the concept is just mind-blowing but i have no idea if it’s a technical thing or if it’s simply ideas that resonate with me.

What do you find to be the most useful thing to know about a character?

It kind of varies on the character, which is bewilderingly unhelpful, I know. Currently I’ve found things like: the book I’m planning has a major character for whom singing was an important part of his life until various events took place, and now he has lost both that and his very strong religious faith. What has proven to be the key in unlocking him in my head is not this, nor his relationship with his family, but what his voice sounds like now. It changed his look in my head and made him an individual character with his own life. Learning which swear words another character favoured as given me her voice. In [the most recent project] it was getting to grips with how [a major character] felt about his position as a golden boy and what effect that had had on his confidence and also recklessness; sometimes I have to keep prodding a character because they feel flat and weird and wrong and something has to be changed about them and I’m never sure what it’s going to be. But there needs to be a handle onto which I can hang in order to make them solid.

Favourite part of the writing process?

I realise I’m in the minority here but THE ACTUAL WRITING. I hate having a wrestling match with my brain trying to plot things. Once all that is in place the scenes usually just write themselves. It’s like running down hill fast or, at some points, like hitting the crest of a rollercoaster. Fantastic feeling, highly worth it just to submerge myself in a totally different reality that I’m also getting to shape without feeling like it’s me doing it? I think part of the reason it is usually not so hard to write the actual content is that by the time I get started I’ve spent so long with the characters/world that there’s no concern about voice or reality. But easily that “god this stuff is just pouring out of me” sensation.
What writing skill/part of your writing are you most pleased with?

I can guarantee that as soon as I focus on something here I will become dissatisfied with it. Previously I’d have said character voice diversity, but I’ve been on an editing read recently and I’m convinced all my characters sound like me. I guess the ability to provide a sense of place without going overboard on details? Not sure if that’s something I actually manage or if I just leave people floundering in white space though. Oh, emotional impact. I’m okay with that.
What do you find the hardest/want to most improve?
Nuts and bolts: I cannot pace for shit. I have real trouble with cause and effect, my endings are ropy, there is little to get plot resolution happening as a result of character actions rather than as something that happens to them – I suffer from chronic Passive Protagonist Disorder and I don’t think it’s going to clear up until I start writing a different sort of protagonist and that’s not happening until I sort out some mental issues. WHICH IS EMBARRASSING, FRANKLY.

In your opinion, what do you think makes a good protagonist? Or at least a compelling/effective one?
My friend [REDACTED], with whom I disagree about a lot of things, said something very good on this: he said if he has made it through a book for 100 pages and he doesn’t care whether the protagonist gets his heart’s desire or has an anvil dropped on him, the book is lousy and the protagonist is lousy. I am inclined to agree. They need to provoke some kind of strong emotion, even if it is just curiosity, and no matter how repellent they are as a person you need to want them to be in your field of “vision” – you have to want to know what they’re up to, what will happen to them. In effect a species of charm, even if it’s achieved by them being horrifyingly charmless.

More annoyingly the consensus of writing books, which I am less inclined to agree with, is that a protagonist has to be active. Things have to happen because of something they’ve done. I’m kind of a fan of the “giant events far beyond the protagonist’s control” approach as well, if only because a) the universe works that way, and b) I think the individualist, non-fatalistic hero is probably a modern/western invention to a degree. So Budgie’s edict, yes.
 
what is a protagonist that you would like to write?

a total fucking shit. I want to be able to write someone with whom I have almost nothing in common and with whom i disagree massively, and still care what happens to them. i want to be able to make myself sympathise with them and care what happens to them, the way that better authors have made me done with complete shit protagonists. in a slightly pseudo-religious sense i think it’s actively important to humanise The Other so that we learn to accept a diversity of viewpoints as being human even as we try to change their views, to approach them as mutable rather than alien and only worthy of destruction and hatred. which means i at some point need to overcome my cowardice relating to being misinterpreted as sharing the views of characters i write, i suppose.
What the most useful thing to keep in mind when going for emotional impact?

  1. small and personal trumps massive and wide-reaching – even if you’re writing about wide-reaching things bring the focus down onto as small a group of people as possible. choose individuals and write about them, pick individual moments rather than a stream – panels/snapshots, not trying to capture the whole event. the glory of the human imagination is that we will fill in the gaps with whatever’s most affecting to us, and the work being done by the reader will surpass anything a writer can do on their own.definitely worth remembering that the consumption of Story is a collaborative act.
  2. i know people go on and on and on about “show, don’t tell”, but it is really important in this area; you only need to devote a sentence or two to the description of an emotion and the rest should be the physical or whatever effects on the character, how they appear, the sensation of that. also with describing an emotion metaphor’s usually helpful? like “mike was sad” blows chunks unless you’re going to contrast it to him either a) being demonstrably not sad (irony) or b) being demonstrably totally fucking devastated (understatement). meanwhile, “mike was hit by a breaking wave of sadness” (or whatever works with your own idiom) is something which makes the experience relatable. “sad” is nebulous. “agony” is relative. “hot needles of shame breaking out in his cheeks” is something most of us are familiar with on a visceral level.
  3. pacing really fucking matters. you can’t pull an immediate emotional impact out of the bag without some build-up – it will just fall flat. you can have tension ticking along in the background of other scenes as you move onto different topics with this “what will happen” hanging over people’s heads, you can twist and bend the narrative however you want, but if you don’t give the moment of emotional impact the space it needs to grow it will just fall flat. also, be wary of either a) getting it over with too quickly – people need to be able to process it and it will feel flat if you just rush past it, or b) dragging it out like you’re milking the damn thing. mawkishness will make readers resent the shit out of it and stop caring both about the event and about the characters.
  4. something that i’ve been writing on my angry post-its to my former self as i go through the first editing pass on my last MS has been “seed this”. it means making sure there are sufficient roots for an event or character leading up to a situation that they feel anchored in the narrative and the world, rather than airlifted in to provide conflict or whatever at an appropriate moment. and  be careful of this, readers get fucking irate if they think you’re just playing them for emotional release for no reason, to no end, without any indication of the point of what you’re doing. it has to have a function in the plot, ideally, or in the character’s development. but also yeah, don’t fridge characters either.

 

We then had a brief interlude for relishing the mere memory of the moments when creation is easy.
ECM:  I get that glorious creative-iron-filings-aligned thing with painting sometimes – like for bloody once one’s brain is doing what it should, all the things that don’t work in every other fucking circumstance pulling together and functioning in an almost unconscious effortlessness.  feels like being a dancer or a sea gull or something, but mentally. never lasts but worth going through the agony and self doubt to do it again. and again. and again.
This seems like as good a point as any to end a very long post full of rambling about the Process, because what she says about the sensation of writing or creating anything, when it works, is all that really needs to be said about that. We are drawn to this annoying, gruelling, frequently otherwise unrewarding path of activity littered with mistakes and disappointments for that addictive experience of the whoosh of creation – when everything goes right and there’s no casting about for words or overstepping lines or wondering what happens next, only the unstumbling rush forward through scenes or colours or compositions, which is worth a thousand of any other kind of experience you could ask for.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the praise and the money when the finished product briefly catches people’s eye, but that’s not why I do it, and I don’t think that’s why anyone else does it, either.

(Further self-important essays on the writing process and advise and exercises can be found in How Not To Write By Someone Who Doesn’t)